Tuesday 19 July 2011

Double Feature 1 at the National, or, A Long Evening of Two Halves

Note: This is a review of the first of five preview performances given on 18th July 2011. The opening night is 3rd August 2011.

This is the first of two double bills of one-act plays which, owing to the extension of London Road in the Cottesloe, the National is putting on in the Paintframe. Let us deal first then with the venue. The publicity in the June-Nov brochure describes the space as “a remarkable new performance environment”. I can only assume that whoever came up with this line in the marketing department has never been to the Edinburgh Fringe where frankly such spaces are two a penny. As a fringe type space (with higher production values than many of those) it works perfectly fine, but there is no reason to attend this just to be in the Paintframe – you'd be just as well off going on one of the National's tours.

What then of the plays. The two in Double Feature 1 are Edgar and Annabel by Sam Holcroft and The Swan by DC Moore, and we will take them each in turn. Edgar and Annabel is set in the kitchen-dining room of a house, with all mod-cons, and the audience are sat on benches in typical rake-seating layout. Basically the couple in the house are masquerading as the said Edgar and Annabel. They are part of a group of freedom fighters creating a front so that explosives can be concealed in the house. In order to carry on this part (it's more complicated than this but I don't want to give too much away) they read their parts from scripts – because for some reason the houses in this dictatorship are only under audio not video surveillance. Occasionally these scenes are interrupted by meetings outside the house with the man who writes the scripts. The major problem with this show from my point of view was that I just never really believed in the powerful dictatorship – the play didn't manage to create enough of an environment of threat. Various reports of people being carted off arrive but I just wasn't engaged enough to care very much. The central drama of the story is the developing desire of the two to break out of their scripted world and this does create the most effective scene in the play. There are flashes elsewhere but I couldn't help feeling that the overall set up is just rather contrived. There are some good ideas but one feels that the desire to bring across a message (which even I who am normally slow could see coming some way off) has been the starting point rather than the characters and this shows. The performers warm up as the piece goes on, and of course this was their first preview and they did have to contend in early scenes with a hacking cough which the acoustic of the space magnified. It may be revealing that beyond the principle female I was unable this morning to reconnect names of characters in the programme with performers on stage. Overall the first half feels its roughly 75 minutes and I was sufficiently weary that I considered leaving at the interval which I almost never do.

Fortunately my natural stubbornness asserted itself, and I stayed. The seating and set is rearranged for The Swan and we find ourselves seated in the round in a decaying South London pub. A funeral is taking place off-stage and the father of the deceased, Jim (a mesmerising performance from Trevor Cooper) is in hiding in his local. It is rather unfortunate for both Holcroft and the first half performers that Moore's play gives its ensemble so much more to work effectively with. It seemed to me that whereas Holcroft had started with the message, Moore had down some brilliant social observation. This is only the second play I can think of (Black Watch being the first) which manages to turn swear words into poetry. Cooper's language in particular is littered with them but it feels entirely natural and right (unlike so much on-stage swearing which seems to be done purely in the belief it shocks). Around him are members of the family, as the context of the funeral is gradually unravelled. Cooper's performance is one of those where every movement and stillness seems an organic part of the character. His excellence is supported by others ranging from very good to excellent. Pippa Bennett-Walker (Denise) and Sharon Duncan-Brewster (Christine) have the heaviest emotional burdens to bear alongside Cooper, come very close to being spot on and will doubtless develop further as the run continues. In supporting roles there are nice turns from the Nitin Kundra as the hapless Bradwell, Claire-Louise Cordwell as his terrifying girlfriend Amy and Richard Hope as Conservative Mr Russell Downey, who has been hiding in this unnatural milieu for years from his unseen battleaxe of a wife, but whose Tory bon mots conceal a more human man underneath. Taken altogether, The Swan is a little gem of the play, I laughed, I had a lump in my throat and I cheered them at the end.

It's possible by the time it opens that the performers in Holcroft's play with have managed to find some punch, though I fear they are wrestling with unfavourable material. Moore's play, on the other hand is a must see.

A Few Housekeeping Matters:

1) Performances start at 8.15pm. I can only assume that this is because of the time needed to transform the Paintframe from a workshop to a theatrical space but it makes for a very late evening and in an ideal world the National would be able to start earlier.

2) There is a bar in the space but it is cash only, so make sure you are supplied (I have rarely lamented the lack of 20pm more!)

3) The nearest loos are at the Cottesloe entrance but this is locked when you leave the performance, so if you need the loo before making your way home you will need to make your way round to the main part of the building. The management might like to consider rectifying this.

4) It is nice to have the live band playing before the show and during the interval. Any band playing an arrangement of “Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps” scores with me. I overheard two of the National's staff querying why nobody was applauding after the tunes – it was a puzzle to me too.

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